Caspian Hope – Written By Stephen Fahey. Part 30

We draped the silks across the open roof to provide what shade we could manage during the hottest hours that day, but it was all but useless. Saying it was like an oven is pointless, it doesn’t even come close. Every breath is hot. You can feel it as it goes down into your lungs, like hot water. It makes you cough and choke. And you never get used to it because it’s so cold each night, so you have to adjust to the heat every single day. It’s infuriating but there’s nothing you can do about it. Then there’s the sweat. The salty residue even encrusts your eyelids. It gets everywhere. Between your legs is the worst. You can’t sit or stand or lie down without it chaffing you and driving you mad. The light is unbelievable too, even when you close your eyes as tight as you can it’s still bright. It pours through clothes and all materials we tried, it even felt like it could pierce brick and metal if it wanted to. I can still feel that heat, the fucking insane and unimaginable heat. Jesus, it was maddening. If we hadn’t been made to acclimatise before being sent out to the checkpoint I’d imagine we’d have gone full-bore crazy. I’ll never understand how the locals live out there. Fuck being born there and not knowing anything else, it’s inhumane.

So there we were, chaffed front to back, half blind, numb with the heat and then it happened. In the distance a low rumble broke the dry silence of the day. Like thunder in the faraway. I almost wasn’t sure I’d heard it but Toddy called down to us and I went up for a look.

“Fuck.”

“That’s gotta be them, Sir.”

“Yeah, bastards are loaded up and ready for world war two by the looks of it! Longshot, Junior, come here. Everyone else, look lively.”

“Sir.”

“Sir.”

“Kegs, Toddy, jump down there in case they spot you.”

“Sir.”

“Sir.”

Standing on our packs leaned against the wall the three of us poked our heads over the lip of the open roof and watched a calm dust cloud rise up in the distance. There had to be thirty or forty trucks pushing up sand and dust. It was chilling viewing, but true to form by boys didn’t even bat an eyelid.

“Looks like a fine party they have going on over there, Sir. They might even have a few beers if we’re lucky” chirped Junior.

“Nah, I bet they like schnapps, like a proper bunch of fops!” snarled Longshot.

“Fuck that boys, these tits couldn’t hold their drink if they sit at the table with us. Better off not bothering to try. Jesus, I’d murder a beer though!” I retorted.

“Here, here, Sir!”

“First round is on me, gentlemen” promised Junior.

We stood there and watched the cortege pass us in the distance. There had to be two or three hundred men trundling along out there, so engaging them was a mute-point. The only question was where they were headed. After about half an hour or so the dust settled as their plume meandered off out of sight. They were headed west, and while god only knew their final destination but they were damn sure on the war path at the speed they were moving. There were many potential reasons why were on the move but the most probable was to either take and hold a vital area or to back up another element already farther west.

My Sergeants knew this as well as I did but nothing was said. We just watched and pondered. It was too close for comfort. It was clear The Shining Light were taking territory to the west, right where we were headed, but there was no saying if they were heading south too. There was nothing out there where we were. Far enough to the west Karakoyyn Lake was a vital point but the open desert wasn’t good for much other than traveling across.

Sitting back down on our packs I was met with sixteen faces all ready for battle. The look in their eyes was one of murder mixed with hope. They didn’t want to have to fight, but by Christ if they had to they were ready to rain down unholy death. I was damn proud. I knew right then they’d all formed into a bloodthirsty bunch of good men.

“Right, Gents. We just got a glimpse of a column heading west. Thirty-odd trucks bearing down on God only knows what for good old General Serik. I’m taking us south from here. There’s a town called Kyzylorda which may already be overrun, however, Syr Darya is a river which runs through it and all the way to the Barsakelmes nature reserve – winding its way all over the place, it eventually gets to where we need to go. If we can’t get through Kyzylorda we’ll go around it and take Syr Darya to the reserve. I’d been avoiding this option because it brings us into a main town and the river runs through three other towns before it reaches the reserve. Plus, even if Serik’s boys aren’t down there it’s risky, but now we don’t have a choice. Any questions?”

Silence.

“Thank you, Gentlemen. Get your rest, it’s another two nights’ march just to get to the outskirts of Kyzylorda and we’re likely to bump into someone on our way. Get your heads down now and I’ll take first watch with Murphy.

“SIR, YES, SIR,” came their solid response.

“Come on Murphy, let’s get to it. Brin and Glynn, in two hours I want you to relieve us.”

“Sir.”

“Sir.”

Lying out across the top of the western wall I lifted my binoculars to my eyes and viewed the horizon. Drifting into contemplation, I readied myself for the inevitable. We were almost certain to lose more men in Kyzylorda. And even if we didn’t, the river wound so much there was no way we would make it to the reserve without running into someone, in the desert where there’s water there’s people. On and on I went, again and again imagining all the variables, planning contingencies.

My watch wore on in this way until Big Brin called me down. By this stage I was sure of our course of action and had a handful of alternatives in mind. I had three or four hours before dusk so I took two hours downtime then called Junior and Tony aside to get their input and fill them in on the plan.

“Right, we’re here.” I said, unfurling my map and stabbing it with my finger. “Kyzylorda is here. Just south of it is Syr Darya, here. As you can see it winds like crazy all the way west to the reserve. It’s a two hundred mile stretch but by boat we’ll be able to chop a huge chunk of our time off our tally. What say you, Junior?”

“Sir. We should scout Kyzylorda and if it’s overrun we should skirt it and enter the river here,” he replied. “If we can get into the town and nab some materiel then we should move out as fast as we can and try and get ahead of Serik’s boys, Sir.”

“Nicely put, Junior. What about you, Tony?”

“Sir. I agree with Junior, we have to see what the situation is in the town first, but if we can, we should gather whatever resources we can and get the hell out of there. If we can’t get into the town we should go around it and take to the river as soon as possible. The water might be under watch by Serik’s forces, if they’ve made their way that far south, so we’ll have to be on the lookout for trouble – if it doesn’t find us first.”

“Spot on, Gentlemen. We have to get down there as soon as we can and see what we’re dealing with, but if these lunatics have already taken the town we’ll move around it to here and grab whatever boats we can and get out of dodge. Of course, if there is any chance we can get into Kyzylorda and bulk up on equipment and supplies, then we’ll take that chance. We need every opportunity we can get our hands on.”

“Sir. If we can’t get to the river without engaging Serik’s boys on the way how do you want to handle them?”

“We’ll be travelling by night so with any luck we’ll stay hidden, Junior. In an unavoidable confrontation we’ll preform a rolling retreat and double-time it out of there. We can’t afford to get into a situation like that, lads. We don’t have the firepower or the ammunition to sustain an engagement; we’ll get squashed in no time.”

“Sir.”

“If we have to fight, we’ll fight, but be under no illusions, any fight could be our last.”

“Sir, Yes, Sir.”

Sending them off to get their own rest and prepare themselves, I stepped back to check on my boys. There was no fear. No worry for personal safety. They had all come so far across the grasslands and the desert, fighting at the battle of Karakoyyn and laying their brothers to rest. There wasn’t a fresh face among them. They were, all of them, men. No longer boys with guns and attitudes. Watching Al, Kegs, Toddy and Pretty Boy clean their rifles I was impressed at their efficiency. Each of them had been proficient when they came to me, but now they were exceptional. When you have nothing to do but clean your rifle all day you get damn good at it.

This moment is seared into my memory. There, in that small shell of a home, my men readied themselves for an insurmountable effort. They were tired, sore, raw and drained, but above it all, and even beyond themselves, they were alive in a way few people ever know. They had a battle of wills ahead of them, and they were ready. It was a dangerously beautiful thing to witness. The silent ritual of preparing oneself to engage your own will to survive. I had no doubts whatsoever they would rise to the challenge – every one of them – but at the same time I knew not all of us would make it out alive. It’s a saddening reality to have to live with as a man of arms, it’s a weight to carry.

“Sir, you up?”

“I’m up.”

“Sir, we’re ready to move out.”

“Thank you, Kegs.”

“Sir.”

“Right, Gentlemen,” I coughed out as I rose from the dirt floor. “We need to cover as much ground as possible tonight, but at the same time we might make contact at any moment, so I want you all on top of your game. If anything appears out of the ordinary to you, no matter how small, make sure and say it. From here on in we know we’re going to run into someone or something. Toddy, Big Brin, you’re on point. Everyone else, wait fifteen and move out.”

To be continued…

© Stephen Fahey

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